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Mach 1 & Beyond: The Quest for Supersonic Flight

Jeffrey Syken

It was a dream as old as manned flight: fly faster than the speed of sound. At first, it seemed an impossible dream, the physical and technical obstacles too difficult to overcome – but that made no difference to the dreamers. First of these daring dreamers were the “Rocketeers,” individuals who dreamed of carrying both passengers and even mail great distances at high speed. The pioneering work of a modest New England physicist would one day make the dream of manned space flight via rocket a reality - his name was Robert Hutchings Goddard. Though he did not live long enough to see it, his groundbreaking research would be invaluable to a fledgling NASA making the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo program/s possible. Even the venerable New York Times would have to admit their error in criticizing Dr. Goddard (nearly fifty years before) for his rocket propulsion theory the day after Apollo 11 was launched on its historic moon mission.

In the days of propeller driven airplanes, the closest a pilot could come to reaching the speed of sound, a.k.a. “Mach 1” (764 mph at sea-level, 664 mph at 40K-feet) was in a “terminal velocity” dive, but even then the drag produced by the shock waves generated held the plane’s speed to a point well below the sonic barrier (if it didn’t tear it apart). Named for Ernst Mach, whose “Schlieren” photographs exposed the compression waves formed by supersonic bullets in flight, the “Mach” scale helped aerodynamicists unravel the mystery of first trans-sonic (approx. Mach 0.7 to 1.3), supersonic (Mach 1.3+) and, later, hypersonic (Mach 5+) flight in the post-WWII years. During the war, the Luftwaffe flew the first rocket-powered plane and nearly saw to fruition the development of the first supersonic fighter, but it came too late in the war and was not realized. However, the technology that went into it (i.e. a ram-jet engine) would be put to good use by the victorious allies, particularly the United States Air Force. Supersonic flight was a top priority, made particularly acute by the advent of the Cold War.

With advances in the understanding of aerodynamic forces and sophisticated propulsion systems, the great challenge to aviation: breaking the sound barrier, was ready to be met. The XS-1 (for “Experimental Sonic”) piloted by WWII ace Charles “Chuck” Yeager would see that challenge met one fine day in the fall of 1947. On the heels of that accomplishment came greater designs and experimental/operational aircraft that would make supersonic and even hypersonic flight commonplace, at least for military aircraft. By the late 1950s, the challenge was to make commercial supersonic flight a practical reality. When an Anglo-French consortium announced their plans to build an SST (SuperSonic Transport) named “Concorde” (in November 1962), the American president, government and aviation industry saw it as a call to action – as did the USSR’s Tupolev Design Bureau. In the end, only the latter’s “TU-144” and the Concorde SST would ever fly leaving behind a mixed legacy of success and failure, but the dream of commercial super/hypersonic flight lives on.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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